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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Franz Kafka was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia, in 1883, to an upper middle-class Jewish family. His father, Hermann Kafka, and his mother, Julie Lowry, came from different socio-economic backgrounds and had a tumultuous marriage; his coarse father spent his life trying to shed his impoverished background and to become worthy of his wife's wealthy family. The friction in the family caused by the parental differences was exacerbated by Hermann's tyrannical rule over everyone. As a result of the family's problems, Franz was raised mostly by a nurse and his beloved sister, Ottla.
Kafka as a young man was plagued by a sense of inferiority, largely produced by the family conflicts. Academically, however, Franz was a good student. He attended college, where he began to write. As early as 1905, he was expressing his skepticism about the existence of a stable world, as evidenced in "Description of a Fight." Kafka received his doctorate in Jurisprudence in 1906 and became a lawyer at the Workers' Insurance Company. He continued to write in his spare time, an exercise his father abhorred and criticized. Interestingly, many of Kafka's works reflect his feelings about both his father and his sister. His short story, "The Judgement" (1912) clearly expresses his fear of his father. Later in his life, he wrote a "Letter to His Father," 100 pages in length, in which the author confronted his dad about the intimidation and abuse he had received as a son.
Although he lived alone in some degree of self-imposed isolation for much of his life, Kafka did have many interests. He studied Einstein's theory of relativity and Freud's writings on psychoanalysis. He was also interested in politics, particularly those that related to the role of the Czechs in the Austrian Empire. He followed the events of World War I, and in 1914, he wrote "In the Penal Colony," which expresses his disgust with the politicians in charge during wartime. In 1919 he published "The Imperial Message," which shows how important messages written at the top never get to the lowly people at the bottom, who could have been saved by the messages.
Kafka was not active in literary circles, nor was he particularly aggressive in his writing career. Had it not been for his life-long friend, Max Brod, Kafka might never have been remembered as a writer. Brod, however, made every attempt to bring Kafka out of his inherent fears and humble attitude. He introduced Kafka to his literary friends in Germany and the rest of Europe and insisted that he read some of his writing to them. Kafka also met his first girlfriend, Felice Bauer, to whom he was twice engaged, at Max Brod's place. Later he had other loves, including Julie Wohryzek and Milena Jesenska, but none of his love affairs developed; he never even knew he had an illegitimate son. Kafka's unhappy love life, his indecision about marrying, his indifference towards his father, his own inflexible honesty, his intense self-analysis, and his tremendous sensitivity affected his health. In 1917 he discovered that he had tuberculosis. Treatment was unsuccessful, and he died at the age of forty-one, in 1924; at the time he was known only to a small literary circle.
Only seven of Kafka's works, all of them short stories, were published while he was alive. "The Metamorphosis" was published in 1912. His unpublished manuscripts, including his three novels, were left to his friend Max Brod, whom he asked to destroy them. Instead, Brod eventually edited and published most of Kafka's manuscripts, including The Trial, Amerika, The Castle, and The Great Wall of China. After his death, there was much interest in Kafka's writings, which are highly imaginative and filled with anxiety; sometimes they border on surrealism or existentialism. Much of his fiction centers on dreams, fantasies, or nightmares, which are described by the author in realistic detail. His works also present a world in which man is deprived of security, frustrated in the pursuit of his dreams, and tortured by loneliness and alienation.
Although in modern times Kafka is considered one of the most important members of the Prague Circle of writers, in his day he felt he did not belong anywhere. The Czechs considered him a German, since his parents were German speaking, and the Germans labeled him a Czech and a Jew. The author himself felt he was a social outcast. Had it not been for the efforts of his friend, Max Brod, Kafka would never have become known as a writer. Brod, however, introduced him to his literary friends in Prague and throughout Europe; he also insisted that Kafka read his writings to them. Kafka's early writings clearly reflect his skepticism and the pain he feels from his social and parental isolation. In fact, most of Kafka's writing is filled with anxiety, largely caused by his tyrannical father and his uncertainty about his bachelorhood.
In 1913, Kafka was introduced to the writings of Soren Kierkegaard, who was radical, skeptical, and religious, like Kafka. Both men were interested in the analysis of human integrity and morality, man's search for himself, and God's guidance; both have been called existentialists. Kierkegarrd, however, comes to faith in his writings; while Kafka comes to despair.